Janet Jackson’s nipple probably had nothing to do with it, but then again, there are no easy answers when you’re trying to figure out why some restaurants make it and so many more do not.
The year was 2004, and in addition to Ms. Jackson’s unplanned breast appearance during the Super Bowl halftime show courtesy of Justin Timberlake — still the butt of late-night jokes — plenty of other crazy stuff happened around the world. Google launched Gmail. Martha Stewart was sentenced to five months in prison.
Kanye West released his debut album. American soldiers were photographed humiliating Abu Ghraib prisoners; Friends decided not to be there for us anymore; Frasier said “Good night, Seattle”; and Lost kicked off its whirling vortex of confusion. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room.
Closer to home, Peyton Manning was still a few years away from joining the Broncos; that year, he signed with the Colts in the biggest NFL deal to date. The sexual-assault charge against Kobe Bryant was dropped by the Eagle County DA. And John Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eight months later, Elway put his money where his mouth wanted to be — namely, on a USDA Prime, wet-aged hand-cut steak.
The same year that Number 7 opened Elway’s Cherry Creek, five other prominent and still-beloved restaurants joined the metro Denver roster of eateries: Racines, Rioja and Table 6 in Denver, and Frasca Food and Wine and The Kitchen in Boulder. All celebrate turning fifteen this year.
Aside from opening in 2004, what do these six restaurants have in common? On the surface, not much. Elway’s Cherry Creek is a charming and manly meat market (though less so since New York’s Le Bilboquet came to town, luring all the cougars away). Frasca is a hospitality-forward winefest serving creative Friulian food for folks with plenty of lettuce. The Kitchen continues to offer Boulder and beyond — Denver and Chicago, to date — the kind of lovingly layered, ingredient-oriented fare that makes farm-to-table such a good thing.
Racines, which became a more sophisticated restaurant (and also gained a killer parking garage) when it closed its original location and opened its new spot, serves three hearty and straightforward meals on the daily to the Everyman. Rioja remains a Mediterranean marvel in a space drenched with ambience in Larimer Square. Table 6 is a small neighborhood bistro well known for its quirky takes on traditional comfort foods.
“I knew you were going to ask me that, so I’ve been thinking about it,” says restaurant consultant John Imbergamo (who has long represented the teams behind Rioja and Racines, as well as Elway’s, in the past) in response to why these six restaurants have been so successful. “How do you put these places even into the same boat, from the everyday fare of Racines to the special stuff of Frasca? I think part of it is that these are very community-oriented places, involved in things like Eat Denver and many charities. But that’s certainly not the whole story here.”
Truth be told, 2004 was a bit of a recalibration for the entire dining scene. Jason Sheehan (who replaced me in 2002 as Westword’s restaurant critic when I went to the Denver Post after nine years) reported that “in 2002 and 2003, Denver opened fine-dining restaurants at a per capita rate higher than that of New York City.” That pace continued the next year, when plenty of less-fine eateries opened, too. While Elway’s, Racines, Rioja, Table 6, Frasca and the Kitchen have all held on, many, many other places didn’t make it, though some hung on longer than others.
And some morphed into other spots. The restaurant industry is incestuous and intertwined, and trying to determine all the openings, closings and lateral moves of any given year is like trying to take down a hard-shell taco: Just when you think you’ve wrapped your maw around it, more shakes out. But a quick taste from the archives reveals that in 2004, the Celtic Tavern on Blake Street opened Delaney’s one door away, but by 2016, both were shuttered. (The Celtic later reappeared two blocks away on Market Street.) Brasserie Rouge, from Robert Thompson and Leigh Jones (with chef John Broening in the kitchen), had opened in 2003 (and won our Best New Restaurant of 2004 award), but was closed after less than a year. The owners split; Jones went on to open several successful neighborhood bars, while Thompson scored a strike with Punch Bowl Social, which is making its mark across the country.
Farther south, Tom Mirabito, who then owned Bruno’s Italian Bistro, bought the old Holly Inn a few doors away and turned it into the ill-fated La Fontana; he also later sold Bruno’s, which lasted until 2018 (and just reopened on South Broadway). Bruno’s had originally been owned by Jane and Mel Master, proprietors of the legendary Mel’s Bar and Grill in Cherry Creek; their son, Charlie Master, opened his deconstructed bistro Brix in Cherry Creek in 2004 (it closed after opening a second, also-now-defunct outpost). Fellow Mel’s alum Goose Sorensen and his original Solera partner Brian Klingensmith opened Ivy Cafe that year, too, putting a bagel spot in the old Finster Brothers Bagel Bakery and Cafe space on Colfax Avenue (it made it three years).
Larry Herz, the owner of the original Carmine’s on Penn, replaced his New American restaurant, Indigo, with the doomed Go Fish, and Nancy Scruggs took a chance on Sparrow in the space at East Seventh Avenue that has been too many to count and is now Ivy on 7th, part of the cool complex overseen by chef Rebecca Weitzman that also includes Carboy Winery Denver and Logan Street Tavern.
Former Larimer Group GM Joe Vostrejs launched the Tom Tom Room two days after Table 6 opened, replacing Tommy Tsunami’s; it later became the now-closed Maloney’s Tavern and then Lil & Lou’s Wreck, which for about five minutes promised “Sexy Southern Fun,” but failed to provide any fun. In 2018, that space briefly housed an installation with more than 1,400 Jerry Maguire VHS tapes. Meanwhile, just a block away, Rioja opened to raves that keep coming.
And there other hits, as well as misses. Mad Greens set up shop downtown that year; now owned by AC Restaurant Group, a Coors family company, it has more than a dozen spots in Colorado. There’s only one Irish Snug, but it still has more than seventy whiskeys.
Still, few of the other restaurants that debuted fifteen years ago have enjoyed the support of the dining public that places like Racines and Rioja have seen. The usual elements that those in the know point to as being part of the recipe for restaurant success — location (say it three times), enough capital, a good PR team, the lack of a pan-throwing, Oxycontin-popping chef — can definitely be found at these spots, but there’s obviously something more to it. My take? After writing about restaurants for nearly three decades, I’d say it all comes down to the owners. And with one exception, the principals of these six eateries haven’t changed since the beginning.
There’s a palpable striving for excellence at each of these fifteeners (case in point: Frasca has three James Beard awards, and Rioja one). The restaurant industry is tightly knit and chatty; when owners are around, everyone knows it, and when they aren’t, everyone knows that, too. The folks with vested interests in these places are famous for being around all the time, or at least checking in quite a bit — or, at the very least, they have good people running interference. Their restaurants offer concerted training efforts, with an emphasis on educating the staff and requiring everyone to start from the rubber mat-covered ground up. They also all have a serious focus on service: While there may be the occasional off meal, diners rarely complain that their staffers are inattentive or display a lack of knowledge, whether they’re serving a stack of nachos at Racines or a big steak at Elway’s.
That devotion to putting the customer first has served to up the ante for other area restaurants over the past decade and a half. When I initially reviewed Frasca, I wrote that it “exudes a generosity of spirit and the diner feels ministered to,” a level of care that I’d not experienced to such an extent over my previous thousands (true) of hired-belly meals. But even beyond the intensive service, these six eateries also have affected how staffs are trained, what constitutes a comfortable dining experience, what needs to go into a proper takeover, why alumni dinners are a welcome blast from the past, and how the personal touch can win diners and influence an industry.
These restaurants also have a well-deserved reputation for sending their employees out into the world to do more great things (little-known fact: Kevin Taylor was a line cook in the early days of Racines). Rioja chefs went on to open Working Class, Super Mega Bien and the now-defunct Ad Hominem, while former staffers also work at Bar Dough and for the TAG Group; still others opened Brazen and Brightmarten. Frasca has numerous former chefs and managers positioned as owners, chefs or managers from here to New York, and with the exception of Table 6 — which was started and is currently part-owned by sommelier Aaron Forman from the long-gone Adega, who parted ways with founding chef Aaron Whitcomb a few years in — the ownership teams of these eateries have launched multiple locations of the same concept or other concepts. (Forman does, however, own a wine club and tequila brand.)
But even as these restaurateurs branched out, they did not let their original hot spots grow cold. In 2015, for example, Rioja was torn down to the studs for a major renovation. Frasca had already remodeled six years into operation, improving the flow and opening up the space. Racines left its original site because of landlord issues, and its owners swore never to be in that situation again...so they built their own building. The Kitchen bolstered its offerings by getting into the hydroponic vertical-farming business. Table 6 rose to the level of the wine-obsessed Forman and now offers a quirky roster that fits the local vibe. And Elway’s, well, is pretty much the same, but it did get a namesake downtown and at Denver International Airport, and added a summer music series that is always packed. Which might be where that bared nipple connection comes in.
Here’s to another fifteen years!
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.